Public Health Concerns? Urban Neoliberal Racism, Mass Poverty, and the Repression of Occupy

Beneath the False and Coordinated Pretext


Iowa City, IA, December 1, 2011. Consistent with recommendations they received from experts in domestic population control at the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, big city mayors and police chiefs across the United States have uniformly cited concerns for “public health” and “public safety” in justifying their armed force assaults on and evictions of the Occupy Movement in mid and late November of 2011. [1] This shared and coordinated pretext for urban repression reeks of bad faith and rich irony. The assaults themselves have been monuments to public un-safety, amounting in many cases to militarized state-terrorist raids on peaceful and democratic free speech and public space.[2] The Occupy Movements have been clean, peaceful (nonviolent), safe and healthy, reflecting their determination to prefigure a positive, people-friendly and cooperative future (beyond the rule of the rich and powerful, what the movement has famously labeled “the 1 percent”) and their knowledge that city officials have wanted reasons to close them down. To be sure, given the ubiquity of homelessness and extreme misery among a significant and rising share of the nation’s urban population and the refusal of many idealistic young Occupiers to simply shun the long-demonized urban “underclass,”[3] it was inevitable that the camps would attract a certain number of city residents plagued by addiction, criminal records, mental instability, chronic joblessness, and the like. Still, the Occupy Movement has dealt well and sensitively with the problems of these forgotten and oppressed people, problems that Occupiers hardly created and which Occupiers seek to alleviate and would like to end through positive government action.


Beneath the officially stated reasons for the often vicious and over-the-top, military-style municipal assaults on and break ups of Occupy’s camps lay a cold reality: city officials and police are beholden to overlapping metropolitan financial, corporate, and real estate elites, that is, to members, allies, and servants of the upper 1 percent that Occupy has with no small reason identified as the primary threat to public health, safety and democracy in the U.S. and the world. The masters and their metropolitan servants do not like to see enduring visible and attention-grabbing symbols of popular opposition to the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson[4]), whose rule and austerity agenda (imposing increased poverty and insecurity on the Many while profits soar and wealth and power is further concentrated upward in the Few) is widely resented by ordinary U.S. citizens even if only a tiny share of the American populace is willing or able to camp out in cold and grimy city parks. The big city fat cats do not appreciate high profile symbols of how much their system has failed the American people (modern day “Obamavilles” that hark back to the ignominious “Hoovervilles” of the early Great Depression) or vibrant gatherings of energized people who seem to threaten to develop a life and culture beyond the wage- and salary- (and debt- and time-) slavery that is expected of the populace under the rule of capital.


If They Were Serious


City officials who were serious about advancing and protecting public health and safety would divert resources from the repression of their downtown Occupy Movements to meeting the needs of the rising mass of poor and deeply poor citizens stuck in ghetto neighborhoods that wallow in the shadows of urban America’s shining financial districts. A recent chilling study issued on the eve of the holiday season by the Brookings Institution paints a terrifying picture of deepening and increasingly concentrated destitution across the supposed national homeland and headquarters of global “freedom.” “As the first decade of the 2000s drew to a close,” Brookings researchers report on the even of the nation’s holiday season, “the two downturns that book-ended the period, combined with slow job growth between, clearly took their toll on the nation’s less fortunate residents.” Further:”Over a ten-year span, the country saw the poor population grow by 12.3 million, driving the total number of Americans in poverty to a historic high of 46.2 million [emphasis added]. By the end of the decade, over 15 percent of the nation’s population lived below the federal poverty line—$22,314 for a family of four in 2010—though these increases did not occur evenly throughout the country.”[5] 

The researchers might have added that the 2010 Census reveals that a record-setting 1 in 15 Americans now live in what poverty researchers have recently resorted to calling “deep poverty”[6] – at less than half the federal government’s notoriously miserly and inadequate poverty measure (that would be at less than $11,157 for a family of four). Furthermore, a recent Census report commissioned by the New York Times shows that 1 in 3 Americans live either in official poverty or in “near poverty,” either officially poor or at less than 150 percent of the poverty level.[7] Shockingly enough, half of all U.S. children and 90 percent of black U.S. children now depend on Food Stamps at some point during their childhood.[8]

The Race and Geography of Extreme Poverty, Subprime Lending, and Depression Era Unemployment

Nothing is more consistently and positively correlated with poor health, crime, illness, educational failure – with threats to public health and safety – than poverty, a great destroyer of lives and opportunity. At the same time, poverty’s negative impact on its most immediate victims and the broader society is magnified and intensified by the extreme spatial concentration of the poor in high poverty neighborhoods. As the Brookings researchers note in their report The Re-Emergence of Concentrated Poverty: Metropolitan Trends in the 2000s: “Rather than spread evenly, the poor tend to cluster and concentrate in certain neighborhoods or groups of neighborhoods within a community. Very poor neighborhoods face a whole host of challenges that come from concentrated disadvantage—from higher crime rates and poorer health outcomes to lower-quality educational opportunities and weaker job networks .A poor person or family in a very poor neighborhood must then deal not only with the challenges of individual poverty, but also with the added burdens that stem from the place in which they live.” [9]  Enduring poverty in a very poor neighborhood subjects poor residents to obstacles and difficulties reaching beyond the costs of individual poverty.

It is one thing to be technically poor but live in a safe “middle class” neighborhood with well-maintained homes, good schools, green space, thriving shops, accessible quality health care, regular public transportation, full-service grocery stores, and other amenities. It is another thing to be poor in a dangerous, crime-ridden, high-poverty neighborhood with boarded up and dilapidated homes, where: the schools feel like jails; intact families are rare; nutrition is purchased under bullet-proofed plastic windows at inflated prices from combination food-liquor stores that lack fresh vegetables and specialize in starchy high sugar and salt items; gangs are prevalent; diabetes, hepatitis, and HIV are near epidemic; prison histories are more common than jobs; more than 40 percent of the men have been saddled with the lifelong mark of a criminal record;  incarceration is an almost routine experience for young males; parks are scarce and/or too precarious to visit; doctors and dentists are absent and small shops are rare; taxies never go and public transit is irregular and hard to reach.[10]  As sociologist Douglas Massey noted in 1994, “housing markets…distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives. Housing markets don’t just distribute dwellings, they also distribute education, employment, safety, insurance rates, services, and wealth in the form of home equity; they also determine the level of exposure to crime and drugs, and the peer groups that one’s children experience.”[11] 

Massey’s observation notwithstanding, U.S poverty remains highly and (by the Brookings researchers’ finding) increasingly concentrated. After declining somewhat during the long economic boom of the 1990s, Brookings reports, the number of Americans living in “extreme poverty neighborhoods” – where 40 percent of the residents live below the poverty line – rose by one third between 2000 and 2009. Currently in the U.S., 10.5 percent of poor people live in such neighborhoods, up from 9.1 percent in 2000. New York City, where the financial titan turned Mayor recently spent $7 million repressing and finally evicting Occupy from the city’s affluent financial district, is home to 1,575, 032 officially poor people and to 174 extreme poverty census tracts that house 697,375 people, including 375,876 poor. Chicago, where the rugged hippie-punching corporate mayor Rahm Emmanuel (Barack Obama’s former White House chief-of-staff) has consistently denied Occupiers a campsite, is home to 593,000 poor people and to 124 extreme poverty tracts that together house 304,139 people including 140,574 poor. Los Angeles, where Antonio Villaraigosa recently evicted his city’s Occupy Movement over mass public protest, is home to 844,712 poor people and to 65 extreme poverty tracts that house more than a quarter million (264,888) residents. Philadelphia, where Occupy was recently evicted, is home to 352,265 poor people and 58 extreme poverty census tracts that house 222,434 people.[12]

The recently increased concentration of poverty reflects among other things the disastrous impact of two recessions (the most recent one constituting the biggest economic downturn since the 1930s). Unfolding due to the capitalist profits addiction[13] of the Occupation Movement’s official enemy the One Percent, the crises have taken a terrible toll on the employment prospects, net worth, and geographic mobility opportunities for the nation’s disproportionately nonwhite poverty population.

Racial oppression is critical here, beneath the movement’s sometimes simplistic division between the super-rich and “the rest of us” (the 1 Percent and the 99 Percent). The Brookings study’s online version includes a link to maps showing the location of the extreme poverty tracts dozens of American cities.[14] As is obvious to anyone familiar with the racialized geography of these highly segregated metropolises, the maps demonstrate that America’s zones of concentrated urban misery are very disproportionately black and Latino. And indeed, while blacks make up 12.6 percent of overall U.S. population, the Brookings reports that blacks comprise 45 percent of the population (by far and away the largest share) that lives in the nation’s extreme poverty neighborhoods.[15]

The mortgage crisis created by the financial elite and the collapse of the housing market has been particularly devastating in Black and Latino neighborhoods. This is because those households’ net worth is more proportionately tied up in home equity, thanks to the broad absence of financial wealth in the Black and Latino communities. As the leading wealth and power analyst G. William Domhoff explains on his Web site Who Rules America?: “In 2007, the average white household had 15 times as much total wealth as the average African-American or Latino household. If we exclude home equity from the calculations and consider only financial wealth, the ratios are in the neighborhood of 100:1. Extrapolating from these figures, we see that 70% of white families' wealth is in the form of their principal residence; for Blacks and Hispanics, the figures are 95% and 96%, respectively.”[16] To make matters worse, the predatory home lending practices (carried out by the leading financial institutions owned and run by the One Percent) that did do much to precipitate the mortgage and financial collapse of 2007 and 2008 particularly targeted people of color. As David McNally notes:

“By 1998…subprime mortgages composed one-third of all home loans made to African-Americans and a fifth of those made to Latinos. And the numbers just kept rising. By 2005, 70 percent of all subprime loans made in Washington, D.C. went to African-Americans. A year later, African-Americans received 41 percent of all sub-prime mortgages in New York, while 29 percent went to Latinos. Women of color were especially vulnerable to subprime extortion  Inevitably, as the mortgage rates kicked higher it became increasingly difficult for the borrowers to make payments, especially as job loss soared, especially among workers of color, reducing peoples’ capacity to pay.”[17]

Incredibly enough but consistent with longstanding racial patterns in U.S. labor markets, four of every ten black Americans experienced unemployment during the 2008-09 Great Recession. As McNally elaborates: “Throughout the first half of 2010, official unemployment among blacks was over 16 percent, while among Latinos, it hovered around 13 percent. In thirty-five of America’s largest cities, official jobless rates for blacks were between 30 and 35 percent- levels equal to the worst days of the Great Depression [emphasis added]….Not surprisingly, blacks and Latinos are almost three times more likely to live in poverty than whites.”[18]

In today’s New York Times (I am writing on the morning of Thursday, December 1, 2011), liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof reflects on the recollections of former Chase Home Finance regional vice president James Theckston, who told Kristof  how he won company accolades for high sales in 2006 and 2007. Theckston “says that some account executives earned a commission seven times higher from subprime loans, rather than prime mortgages. So they looked for less savvy borrowers — those with less education, without previous mortgage experience, or without fluent English — and nudged them toward subprime loans…These less savvy borrowers were disproportionately blacks and Latinos, he said, and they ended up paying a higher rate so that they were more likely to lose their homes. Senior executives seemed aware of this racial mismatch, he recalled, and frantically tried to cover it up,” Kristof writes. “If you want to understand why the Occupy movement has found such traction,” Kristof comments, “it helps to listen to a former banker like Theckston. He fully acknowledges that he and other bankers are mostly responsible for the country’s housing mess.”[19]


Militarized Policing in the “Free Market” Era:


According to a recent Associated Press report, 18 U.S. cities including New York City spent 13 million taxpayer dollars on the policing and repression of their local Occupy Movements between the rise of Occupy Wall Street in mid-September and Bloomberg’s recent quasi-totalitarian police-state tear-down[20] of the original Occupy Wall Street (OWS) camp in the New York City financial district’s Zucotti Park.[21]   Urban policymakers who were actually serious about protecting public health and safety would have spent that money (itself a small drop in the bucket of the vast taxpayer expense of public service to corporate and financial America[22]) instead on various forms of direct social service (health and child care, drug counseling, education, food and nutrition, recreation, and …the list of unmet needs to address goes on) to the many and growing number of primarily nonwhite extreme poverty neighborhoods that have been struggling for many decades in the invisible and painful shadows of the profits system – the system that Occupy has tried in its own imperfect ways to oppose. The needs of those communities and the broader mass of the rising American poverty and near-poverty populations do not jibe with the longstanding corporate neoliberal agenda that serves and protects “the One Percent” – the top hundredth of disproportionately Caucasian corporate and financial masters who own more than a third of the nation’s wealth and a larger share of its elected officials while an increasing share of the citizenry slips into the nation’s disproportionately nonwhite misery class.[23]


In the dominant public discourse shaped by that agenda, the nation’s “pervasive racial hierarchies collapse,” in the words of the prolific social critic Henry Giroux, “into power-evasive strategies such as blaming minorities of class and color for not working hard enough, refusing to exercised individual initiative, or practicing reverse racism.” Even as an insidious, increasingly invisible racism “functions” as “one of the deep and abiding currents in everyday [American] life,” this discourse works “to erase the social from the language of public life as to reduce all racial problems to private issues [of]…individual character and cultural depravity.” This “neoliberal racism,” as Giroux calls it, “can imagine public issues only as private concerns. It sees “human agency as simply a matter of individualized choices, the only obstacle to effective citizenship being the lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility” on the part of those most victimized by structural oppression and the amoral agency of those super-empowered actors who stand atop the nation’s steep and interrelated hierarchies of class and race. Under its rule, “human misery is largely defined as a function of personal choices,” consistent with “the central neoliberal tenet that all problems are private rather than social in nature.” [24]  Government efforts to meaningfully address and ameliorate (not to mention abolish) sharp societal disparities of race and class are deemed alternately futile, counterproductive, and inappropriate. Government’s functions are progressively concentrated on “making war,” “enhancing opportunities for the investor class,” “suppressing wages for everyone else,” and “suppressing dissent.”[25]


Over the last generation, the dominant U.S. neoliberal ideology advanced by and for the elite has masterfully disseminated a fantasy struggle between the allegedly evil state and the supposedly virtuous (and supposedly free) “free market.”  At its “conservative” (radically regressive) extremes, the ideology’s proponents have proclaimed a desire to “starve the [government] beast” and “cut government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” (leading Republican anti-tax guru Grover Norquist). Beneath quasi-libertarian discourse about the epic conflict between “stultifying government bureaucracy” (bad) and “free market” capitalism (good), however, neoliberalism’s corporat

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